It is so commonplace to ridicule or ferociously attack religious extremism, that upon entering a screening of Sheikh Jackson, one might have worried that the film would be no more than an indirect satire of fanaticism.
Yet two hours later, it was clear that Amr Salama and has team worked to go far beyond the usual clichés surrounding this theme.
The film follows a young, ultra-conservative Egyptian sheikh who is starting to “lack faith”, as he puts it.
Old childhood and teenage memories cloud his spirits, reminding him that he was once a great fan of American singer Michael Jackson. Upon hearing of the latter’s death on the radio, he is devastated, to the point where he imagines the international pop star following him everywhere, including the mosque where he works.
On a personal level, he embraces these omnipresent images, yet on a spiritual level, these thoughts greatly trouble him.
In this work, Salama offers some new frameworks for debating and thinking of the type of education imposed on some children by their parents, societal constructions of masculinity, or the depiction of Michael Jackson himself as a controversial figure across the Arab world, especially among Muslim communities.
The script, written by Salama and Omar Khaled, does not give all the explanations, but rather leaves room for the viewers to reflect, guided by the main protagonist’s voice.
The director’s militant streak is not absent from the film, but subtly manifests itself in the characters’ choices, lifestyles and behaviours.
To communicate a number of messages, Salama lends his voice to the camera. His discourse, while tinted with irony, remains meaningful and profound. His style of direction brings meaning to the frequent silences, at times accompanied by music.
Some of the film’s strong points include the elaborate scenography and visual techniques, and aesthetically appealing scenes featuring Jackson’s music.
Rather than discourse, Salama prefers a different style of direction, free of ornamentation and lengthy religious debate, to describe the daily life of this religious man. He manages to maintain this fragile balance.
The filmmaker presents an array of faces, marked by fear, but also serenity. The extraordinary actors all brilliantly portray their respective characters.
Ahmed El-Fishawy gives one of the most profound and successful performances. His mature performance beautifully incarnates the character of the imam, torn between passion and rationality.
Ahmed Malek gives an excellent performance of that same character in his teenage years, a time when he was completely enamoured with Michael Jackson. The two young actors spent weeks losing weight and learning to break dance.
Various levels of dramatic expression and interpretation put the spotlight on Malek’s fresh talent.
Maged El-Kedwany surprises the audience with his portrayal of a violent father and unfaithful husband.
Basma, Amina Khalil and Yasmine Rais, and even the young Salma Abu Deif play their roles with striking agility. Then there is Hani Adel, who deserves much credit for his montage and soundtrack.
There was some debate about choosing the film as Egypt’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, since the decision occurred before the film’s release in cinemas, thereby risking incompliance with submission requirements. Furthermore, the film left empty-handed after the first edition of El-Gouna Film Festival.
Nevertheless, Sheikh Jackson counts among the important works in all the team members’ filmographies. It is suited to any audience members seeking entertainment, but most importantly, thought and reflection.